Weak forms

W I made it! Finally got to ‘W’ and so can talk about something really important. Weak forms. A central feature of spoken English. Crucial to getting the rhythm right. Something we can all wax lyrical about! (If you’re sitting there panicking because you can’t quite remember what weak forms are, don’t worry. Memory is a fragile thing. Just follow this link to Teflpedia, and then come back here when the details and examples have been refreshed).

Articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, pronouns and prepositions – there are roughly forty function (grammar) words in English that exhibit both a strong form, ‘dictionary’ pronunciation, and a weak form or ‘reduced’ pronunciation. Of the two options, the weak form proves to be the norm in colloquial, native-speaker speech, whilst the strong form is reserved for situations of emphasis or because the function word in question comes at the end of an intonation group.

Weak forms are the norm, then, in NS speech, but how important is it for our learners to acquire their use? Peter Roach puts forward two reasons for teaching weak forms:

[F]irst, most native speakers of English find an “all-strong form” pronunciation unnatural and foreign–sounding, something that most learners would wish to avoid. Second, and more importantly, speakers who are not familiar with the use of weak forms are likely to have difficulty understanding speakers who do use weak forms; since practically all native speakers of British English use them, learners of the language need to learn about these weak forms to help them understand what they hear.

Roach, 2009: 89

A third reason is put forward by Judy Gilbert, a US pronunciation expert, and an inspiration to so many of us, myself included. Judy argues that in order to help the listener to notice the most important word in an utterance (which she calls the focus word and I referred to as the tonic in a recent post), it is necessary to emphasise this word. In contrast, function words ‘are usually not the focus word in a thought group. In fact, these less information–heavy words are usually de–emphasized. English speakers usually reduce (or weaken) them and as a result they are hard to hear’. Judy illustrates her point rather beautifully with the image of a butterfly.

Gilbert, 2008: 12

A fourth argument in favour of teaching weak forms is put forward by Collins and Mees in Practical Phonetics and Phonology, who argue that ‘weak and contracted forms are necessary for anyone with the goal of approaching fluent, native-speaker English.’ (Collins and Mees, 2008: 20). That said, they do concede that:

‘[I]t’s certainly fair to argue that they are of less significance to a person learning English as a ‘lingua franca’ (see Jenkins 2000) – namely a basic form of communication. But we assume that people reading this book will either be native speakers (in which case you’ll want to know about these features of your language), or if you are a non-native you’ll be aiming at more than bare intelligibility.

Collins & Mees, 2008: 20

Now, if you’ve been following ‘An A–Z of Pronunciation’, you may be beginning to spot that I don’t fully agree with these four arguments in favour of teaching learners to use weak forms. In fact, I only fully agree with one of them. Which one? Go on, have a think about it. And be bold. Have an educated guess. You know me by now, and how I feel about what to teach in the way of pronunciation for the sort of learners who people the vast majority of classrooms around the world.

Made your guess? Can’t be bothered to? Well, either way, here we go. But not in the order above, and not in my words, which aren’t worth a penny. Instead, I’ll cite from Jenny Jenkins. (‘Not that woman again!’, I hear some of you moan. ‘Well, yes. That woman again because what she said some twenty years ago is more worthy of attention than ever. Seriously.)

First, then, the idea of weakening or de-emphasising words so that others stand out.

The theory is that through the speaker’s weakening of these items, the listener’s attention is able to focus on the more important (in terms of the speaker’s message) content words. I will say at once that I am not at all convinced by the argument that it is necessary to weaken an unimportant item in order to highlight an important one, provided that the latter is adequately stressed. British actors regularly fail to produce weak forms, as do speakers of certain L1 varieties of English (for example, Scottish and South African English), without any consequent loss of intelligibility.

Jenkins, 2000: 146–7

I didn’t know that about Scottish English (Are you there PronSIG’s Gemma Archer? You’re the expert.), but I agree with Jenny that you can have focus without weakening other words. I hear it all the time as I’m listening to Spanish, my L2. And if you de-emphasise too much (which I find a lot of today’s British actors are constantly doing), then instead of a darkish background against which the butterfly stands out, you get a black background that conveys no information at all.

There’s a limit to how much you can de-emphasize the background.

It’s interesting to read more of what Judy Gilbert has to say on this: ‘Learning to reduce structure words is a challenge for learners. Part of the challenge arises from the logical contradiction involved in asking students to “pay attention to the words that need to be obscured.” However, practice with emphasizing the focus word will help them to grasp the contrast between the highlights and the shadows of a sentence.’ (Gilbert, 2008: 13–14). I’ll come back to this.

The first and fourth arguments in favour of teaching learners to use weak forms are really quite similar and run along the lines of ‘This is what native speakers do. If you want to sound like a native speaker, you’ll have to do it, too.’

There’s no coming back on this. It’s completely true. If you want to sound like a native speaker. However, as the last twenty years or so have shown quite clearly, not everybody needs nor wants to sound like a native speaker. Jenny Jenkins counters this argument fairly directly:

Another argument in favour of weak forms is that learners should produce them because native speakers do. Notwithstanding the previous point (i.e. that L1 speakers of varieties of English which contain weak forms in their inventories sometimes avoid them for the sake of clarity), this is not a valid argument for EIL. Here, what L1 speakers do in order to promote intelligibility when they communicate with each other – and even with L2 speakers – is irrelevant. In EIL, we are concerned above all with safeguarding intelligibility among speakers for whom English is nobody’s L1. The interests of ‘native speakers’ are secondary to the enterprise.

Jenkins, 2000: 147

Are ‘irrelevant’? Are ‘secondary’? That’s a bit strong, Jenny, isn’t it? Well, no, I don’t think so. In fact, I totally agree. What NSs do amongst themselves to be intelligible to each other is NOT automatically transferable to NNS in EIL/ELF contexts. And I don’t agree with Collins and Mees when they describe ELF as ‘a basic form of communication’ and assume the the non-native speakers who don’t use weak forms are satisfied with the lesser goal of ‘bare intelligibility’.

Put more simply, I don’t accept that English spoken without weak forms represents a lesser form of English. In fact, I would argue that in EIL/ELF communication it could be regarded as the higher form, in the sense that by not using weak forms the listener receives valuable background information about auxiliary verbs, prepositions, conjunctions and so on. Such grammatical information is so inbuilt into any native speakers competence of the language that it doesn’t need to be clearly pronounced in order to be understood to be there. But where English is being used as an L2 by all or most of the interlocutors in an interaction, then allowing this grammatical data to be heard could well make communication more successful. As Jenkins points out ‘it is quite clearly the case in both RP and GA that speakers regularly and dramatically decrease their use of weak forms in situations where they are taking extra care to be understood, for example in television interviews and conference presentations.’ (Jenkins, 2000: 147)

So do we just drop weak forms from our teaching altogether? Well, no. There’s still the second argument to answer, which is Peter Roach’s concern about listening to native-speaker speech, which is inevitably characterised by the use of weak forms. Native speakers are almost totally unaware that they are using weak forms, and most wouldn’t be able to stop using them even if they were aware. So L2 users of English that are likely to come into contact with native speaker English (i.e. almost all learners), need to be able to decode the weak forms in NS speech. In other words, what learners need to be able to do (i.e. productive phonological competence) and what they need to able to understand (i.e. receptive phonological competence) are not the same with respect to weak forms. Receptive competence in this area is necessary. Productive competence is not only not necessary; it is not desirable.

Well, this has been longer than planned, and once again, congratulations if you have got this far. Or perhaps you’ve just skipped to the end to see if there’s a summary as with a number of earlier posts. Well, yes. There is.

  • In NS English certain words (articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns) can be said with an alternative pronunciation in which the vowel is reduced in quality, usually to schwa. These alternative pronunciations are known as weak forms.
  • The use of weak forms is a constant in most varieties of NS speech, especially rapid, colloquial speech.
  • The use of weak forms by NSs decreases when they take extra care in order to be more clearly understood.
  • Non-native speakers who wish to acquire a NS accent will have to master the use of weak forms, receptively and productively.
  • Speakers involved in EIL/ELF communication only need to develop receptive phonological competence in the use of weak forms.
  • Speakers involved in EIL/ELF communication, regardless of whether they are using English as an L2 or an L1, should avoid using weak forms in order to maximise intelligibility.
  • English spoken with weak forms is not a lesser– or learner-standard English. It is the optimum English pronunciation for clarity in EIL/ELF contexts provided that focus words (i.e. tonics) are adequately stressed.

Further reading & references

Collins, B. & Mees, I. M. (2008) Practical Phonetics and Phonology (2nd ed.) London and New York: Routledge.

Gilbert, J. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology (4th ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


7 thoughts on “Weak forms

  1. Hi Robin, thanks again for a strong argument towards your conclusion – all very clear, and I agree 100%. Turning to the teaching of receptive phonological skills, I want to know to what extent you think production training helps receptive skills, i.e. should teachers get learners to try out saying weak forms as a means of attuning their ears to weak forms?


    • That’s an interesting one, Daniel, and a while back I’d have said no, but on rereading Judy Gilbert’s 2008 booklet I see that she sort of recommends doing this, even if not explicitly (and of course thinking about EFL rather than ELF).

      But I also saw that in ‘Phonology for Listening’, Richard Cauldwell openly suggests that students play around with weak forms and try to produce them (he calls it vocal gymnastics), since this can help them to hear weak forms better, which is critical for decoding colloquial NS speech, the focus of his book. And I also seem to remember Mark Hancock advocating producing weak forms not to perfect them for future use, but as a way of helping yourself hear them in other speakers’ speech (but this is from memory, and mine’s not to good these days.)

      I guess I never really had students much beyond B2 because of the places where I worked, and L1 transfer was so strong, with vowels being given their full quality, that I focused much more on their getting the stress on the focus word and empahsising it adequately ‘a la Gilbert’. To get this right they had to ‘hurry over’ the other words, which was usually done by shortening them even though the full vowel quality was there. This is actually what Jenkins recommends – focus your learners attention on the tonic (Gilbert’s ‘focus word’) and get them to skate relatively quickly over the other words in the thought/intonation group. In doing so they will inevitably not produce weak forms, but that in itself won’t threaten intelligibility.


  2. Thanks for tagging me in this, Robin. It’s the first I’d heard about Scottish speakers not using weak forms! I’ve been hunting high and low for more sources on this this morning and I can’t find anything! I personally produce/use weak forms … I wonder if it is more in reference to Scots than Scottish English… shall have to put my investigator’s cap on!
    On another note, I like to get my students to ‘play’ at producing the weak forms, simply so they can gain an understanding of the process that’s going on. I’m always explicit that this practice is not because they have to produce them, but they will certainly hear weak forms being used and it’s useful for them to recognise them and understand them.


    • Thanks for looking into this, Gemma. I had no inkling prior to reading Peter Roach’s comment that Scottish English might not use weak forms so it was a surprise for me, too. I do get the impression that some African Englishes don’t use weak forms as I listen to speakers from West Africa on BBC World, but again, it’s just an impression.

      What I did discover back in my days of revelling in teaching weak forms was that quite often I’d think about taking a song to class as a way of practising them, only to discover that the NS singer didn’t use them where I’d expected them to be used. I think this was the first time that I began to see that they are a facilitator for NSs wishing to speak at speed, but are not obligatory. Jenny Jebkins’ work entered my life at around that first moment of curious doubt, and the rest, for me at least, is history.


  3. An excellent article Robin. Food for thought with no chance of starving.
    Keep up the good work. James


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